Donald Trump’s election to the White House heralded the biggest upheaval in US-European relations since the birth of the Nato alliance in 1949. Over the past two years, the US president has at times seemed to regard Europeans as competitors and adversaries rather than allies and partners. Disputes have erupted over issues as varied as climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and transatlantic trade. In some anxious Europeans’ view, the curiously Russophile Mr Trump has inflicted damage on the western alliance that the Soviet Union in its heyday could only have dreamt of.
Fortunately, petulant presidential tweets and unmannerly behaviour are not the same thing as the Trump administration’s actual policies towards Europe. In important respects Washington is displaying at least as much commitment to the security of Europe as during earlier presidencies. Despite profound disagreements on other matters, Republicans and Democrats in Congress have done a good job of curbing some of the president’s most wayward instincts in foreign policy.
Under Mr Trump the US has pressed on with the establishment of a stronger Nato presence in the Baltic states, Poland and the Black Sea region. There, the collective involvement of US, Canadian and European forces is intended as a reminder of Nato’s Article 5 doctrine that any attack on one ally would be considered an attack on all.
Encouragingly, the Trump administration’s engagement with Europe extends to diplomatic problems as well. Washington played a helpful, well planned part in the process by which the governments of Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia resolved a longstanding quarrel over the latter’s name. That culminated in what will now be called North Macedonia signing an accession agreement to Nato last week. The US is likewise involved in efforts to find a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo and to fortify Ukraine’s independence against Russian subversion. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is losing patience with the peacock dances of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s artfully illiberal prime minister. Washington is rightly making clear Budapest should behave as a loyal US ally and not some Kremlin surrogate in central Europe.
It is no accident that the most vigorous US efforts are concentrated on central and eastern Europe. For reasons of geography, energy security, fragile democratic traditions and threats to the rule of law, this region is home to the most vulnerable US allies.
Yet strategists such as Wess Mitchell, who regrettably resigned last month as US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, rightly contend that the western alliance as a whole must strengthen its defences against Russian and Chinese bullying, espionage and economic pressure. Like its predecessors, the Trump administration is justified in expecting the Europeans to pull their weight in the Atlantic alliance.
The annual Munich Security Conference later this week is an occasion for US and European policymakers to reflect on such challenges. Seven decades of transatlantic co-operation have brought unparalleled peace and stability to Europe, especially its western half. Much will depend on whether Mr Trump seeks and wins a second term. His administration’s disdain for the EU and assault on multilateral global institutions are severe blows for Europeans, but do not cancel out Europe’s overriding interest in maintaining the alliance. Hard work, patience and stepped-up financial and military contributions are the way for Europe to keep the US engaged in its affairs. The future should never be taken for granted.